- Today, I consider my own Southern Indian heritage with a mixture of appreciation and also sadness. There is a great deal of misogyny that is honored, venerated and dolled up in the name of 'timeless tradition'. Women are still categorized into (without exaggeration): the saint, the whore and the terrifying one. The saint is the one you want to marry, the whore the one you want to bed, and the terrifying one you want to get away from.
As long as these categories exist, as they do in virtually every society across the globe, the Divine Feminine will continue to be ignored. In Indian culture, the paradox is almost painful to watch. We parade idols of Goddesses, have them in our homes, and worship them through nights of prayer - all the while ignoring the Goddess within every woman, man and child.
We venerate idealizations and stereotypes of womanhood as part of inculcated tradition. Did you know that idols and images of Kali are actually said to be a bad thing when kept on the main pedestal in the home? Did you know that in the layout of temples, unless it is dedicated to Her, she is kept on the outer edge of a temple? Did you know that a woman cannot be a priestess even if she inherits the right from her father? Or that a woman on her period, a woman who had sexual intercourse earlier that day, cannot even enter a temple? (Men just have to shower and voila!)
As much as I appreciate the vibration of Love preached within the New Age movement, too much of the paradox and the misogyny within Indian society goes unnoticed. Many buy into the iconography and textual descriptions of the Goddess, all the while ignoring how she is actually treated - in the bodies of actual women and young girls.
So much of the concept behind 'Namaste' is touted as proof of the ancient wisdom of the Indians - and the beautiful images of goddesses fly around the Internet as embodiments of the Divine Feminine. (For those of you who are interested, have a look at the Laws of Manu and its views on women - you have to pick and choose if you want to incorporate elements of this tradition into worship that honors the feminine equally - and that requires conscious effort).
Try acting like Kali, or even an annoyed Parvati in real life and you get marginalized and told to stay in your place. Worse, if you get angered enough with the patriarchal 'status quo', you get labelled as 'mad', 'egocentric' or someone in need of medical attention (i.e. the 'hysterical female'). The worship of the Goddess and the treatment of women in India sit on two different extremes. (Did you also know that the rate of female foeticide is actually higher in urban metropolises than the (supposedly) 'uneducated' 'rural' backwaters? )
But how many people actually know that the original worship of the peoples of the Indian sub-continent honored the Mother, the Serpent - and according to the seals at Mohendajaro-Harappa, the Dolphin as well? How many of us uncritically assume that the language spoken at the time was Sanskrit (as that is the representation of India I see in spiritual circles)? Honestly, we don't know that for sure. How many of us assume that the Vedic traditions make up what is Hinduism? (Don't get me wrong, I use Sanskrit Chants and have chosen to integrate parts of the Vedic tradition in my own worship, but I do so by conscious choice).
When we look at elements of a different culture, even with the best of intentions, some degree of mis-translation is bound to happen. And so, I ask, those who resonate so strongly with Mother Kali, Mother Parvati, Mother Saraswati, Mother Laxmi, and Mother Ganga, to look not only at the ways they are depicted, but also at the reality of the women living in their ancestral lands of worship. What do we say about a culture that honors Mother Laxmi as wealth-giver, but still persists in murdering female infants and fetuses, valuing them less than sons or denying them opportunities on the basis that they are women.
As we all tap into the 'Dark Goddess' and celebrate her raw power, how often do we think about the fact in the land where Kali was first conceived - a dark-skinned woman is seen as lesser prospect in marriage, just because of her coloring? She is considered dark, ugly, and of less value. How often are we taken in by the glamorized cinematic depictions of gorgeous Indian women, hailed as representatives of their own culture, but are so very different from so many? For those who are familiar with the cultural productions (movies, etc.) that portray the Goddess, have you not noticed the absolute absence of a woman of dark colouring on screen, even within the South? (There was one main exception, and she was relegated to the 'slut' category).
This is not to say that fair skinned women cannot be Goddesses, or cannot be valorized -it is to point out yet another deeply rooted paradox. The Dark Mother is worshiped and feared, and yet her daughters are urged to bleach their faces (w. products like 'Fair and Lovely') because to be dark is to be ugly. Even in a recent jewellery ad that was hailed as visionary and also featured on Upworthy, the 'dusky' bride was ... well.. perhaps dusky to someone surrounded by people with near-Caucasian coloring.
This is my question to you - I am all for an eclectic understanding of spirituality and religious worship (and I do the same). But when we worship a Goddess from this land, is it not important to see how she is invoked (and dishonored) in the same breath? I studied one of the most important political institutions in India as part of my doctoral thesis, and even there the idea of 'women being worshiped as Goddesses' was being used as justification to not grant them greater political rights. A far cry from the truth, my friends.
We have enough illusions - lets get to the heart of it.
India is awakening, there is no doubt of that. There will be exceptions to the questions I raised above - but please remember they are exceptions to the norm. Also, most of you are probably aware of that the branch of spiritual heritage that honors men and women equally, the Tantric Left-Hand path, or even the phenomenon of Shaktism that honors the Goddess (though, not necessarily real women) - please understand that they are branches, mostly suppressed in the commonplace experience of spirituality and religion through their local temple.
Before I get the argument of 'how can you know what the average is', please do some research, travel to the cities and the countrysides, and talk to people from within the culture itself. I know more people from different cultures who know and understand who the Tantric Goddesses are than I do from this culture - and believe me I have looked. Hard.
It is wonderful that old knowledge is coming out through the impetus of the New Age movement, and all I say is that some caution needs to be exercised and some research done on the context where these insights come from.
All that I have said can and has been verified through research, observations, memoirs - the information is out there, but nothing beats seeing it/living it for yourself.
Let's find a way to Honor the Mother in ritual, ceremonial, but also substantial and material ways. Let's be critical when we think about her, or the cultures which deify her (but ignore her daughters). Let's honor the truth of the situation and understand the idealized-projections that a culture wishes others to see it as - sadly, an illusion bought almost too readily. There is never going to be a 'homogeneous' understanding of Hinduism, or what all its spiritual tenets mean. A lot of what we talk about comes from non-mainstream branches and from a pre-Vedic tradition that has continued on through this day?
Let us reflect now with the retrograde (internally-directed) energies of Pallas Athena in the skies, Let us reflect with the energy of Brighid, who inspired me to write this, Let us love with the fires of the fierce goddess Kali -- as we look at the 3-D world so many of us have incarnated to facilitate change within. And let us consciously choose to engage with ancient traditions instead of allowing ourselves to form into a different form of uncritical spiritual consumerism that cherry-picks the best of things, ignoring the paradoxical realities that underpin them.